Bay Area, Midwest Edtech Startups Pitch WI Investors, Target K-12

8/13/14Follow @XconomyWI

It’s rare to hear of Silicon Valley startups pitching their companies to angel investors in Wisconsin. Usually it’s the inverse, with Badger State entrepreneurs trying to score funds from California investors’ deep pockets.

But on Tuesday, three San Francisco Bay Area startups—along with companies from Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis—presented to a room of more than 20 people at Golden Angels Investors’ offices in Brookfield, WI, just outside of Milwaukee. Golden Angels, a network of about 100 Wisconsin and Illinois investors, recruited the companies to participate in the group’s second annual “Education Technology Venture Day,” and invited Xconomy to attend the private event.

The event provided an opportunity for the edtech companies to network with investors, educators, and service providers, with the ultimate goal of striking investment deals, said Tim Keane, Golden Angels’ founder and director. The group has held similar events around healthcare and clean energy.

The angel group has one edtech company in its portfolio, San Francisco-based UClass, which presented at the first Golden Angels edtech day. UClass founder and CEO Zak Ringelstein returned for Tuesday’s event mainly to share an update on the company, rather than seek additional investment.

Keane sits on UClass’s board, which has helped boost the angel group’s credibility in Silicon Valley and helped it attract California companies to this year’s event, he said. “There aren’t many companies from California that would come to talk to investors in Milwaukee,” he added.

For the first event, Golden Angels solicited applicants, but this year it handpicked the invitees after researching hundreds of edtech companies, Keane said. The presenters were Curriculet, based in San Francisco; DocentEdu, of Stillwater, MN; LearnMetrics, from Chicago; Project Foundry, of Milwaukee; Schoolzilla, from Oakland, CA; and ThinkCerca, from Chicago.

The startups ranged from early-stage, bootstrapped ventures with no paying customers to companies with seed funding and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue. The companies primarily serve K-12 schools and are tackling a mix of classroom content creation, student assessment, workflow management systems, data analytics, and more.

Here’s a rundown of some of the interesting tidbits and themes that emerged from their pitches:

—Breaking down silos: If the event made one thing abundantly clear, it’s that data analytics isn’t just for business customers. Schoolzilla founder and CEO Lynzi Ziegenhagen used the metaphor of breaking down silos in describing how her company helps schools structure and analyze the data spread across everything from student attendance to payroll processing, and from students’ grades to surveys. Schoolzilla and LearnMetrics are businesses built specifically around data analytics services, but virtually every company that presented Tuesday involves some element of data tracking. UClass, for example, is primarily a content management system, à la a souped-up Dropbox for education. But it also aims to help teachers measure a curriculum’s effectiveness.

—The piecemeal mobile-app approach won’t cut it. It would be easy for any teacher to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of educational mobile apps available for download. ThinkCerca founder Eileen Murphy, who was a teacher for 15 years, called the phenomenon “death by 10,000 apps.” She also likened it to being handed a big box full of free puppies—there’s an initial excitement that they could make your life wonderful, but what do you do with them after you take them home? Murphy’s company, on the other hand, aims to be the right package of content and interactive, personalized software tools for helping students master critical thinking and literacy skills across multiple subjects.

—Content is hard, but it’s still king. Edtech companies sometimes think content is too big of a challenge to create in-house, Murphy said, but the majority of a typical day in the classroom still revolves around the content itself. ThinkCerca develops much of the material attached to its software platform, but not every edtech company does that. Instead, most of the companies at Tuesday’s event emphasize “selling the learning experience on top of the content,” as DocentEdu co-founder Karin Hogen put it. Her company provides a Web browser extension that lets teachers embed discussion questions, word definitions, and notes within classroom reading material, such as an online New York Times article. Curriculet offers a similar service, but primarily focuses on electronic books taught in the classroom.

—Catering to education’s real customers. Project Foundry CEO Bill Mortimore thinks the conversation on education reform often focuses too much on everyone except the actual customers of the educational system—students. Most classroom instruction still involves lectures and reading assignments, even though those tactics are less likely to engage today’s youth.

Education in the 20th century followed an “industrial model,” while the 21st century model is one of individualized instruction that puts the student at the center, Mortimore said. He cited a 2013 survey of students by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that found the most popular learning methods are projects, activities, and professional interviews/internships. That’s where his company’s software focuses—facilitating project-based learning.

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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